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Portion Control for Weight Loss

By EAT SMARTER
Updated on 27. Dec. 2018

Food portions have been growing for years and years, to the point where one meal, especially at restaurants, can account for a whole day’s worth of calories. These increased portion sizes are a large part of what caused the rise in obesity in the U.S, where over one-third of adults are obese. The rise in portion size has encouraged people to eat more, most of the time they do so without realizing how many calories they are eating.

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Food portions have been growing for years and years, to the point where one meal, especially at restaurants, can account for a whole day’s worth of calories. These increased portion sizes are a large part of what caused the rise in obesity in the U.S, where over one third of adults are obese. The rise in portion size has encouraged people to eat more, most of the time they do so without realizing how many calories they are eating.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has been providing food guidelines since 1916, but it wasn’t until 1992 that the food pyramid was first introduced with the inclusion of moderation and nutrient content. This food pyramid became a big part of early childhood education regarding nutrition, as it was visually appealing and fairly simple to understand. It showed in a helpful way how many servings we should be getting from each food group per day.

According to the USDA, women should get about 1900 calories per day while men should get about 2400 calories per day (depending on activity level and age). At some restaurants or fast food joints, a single meal or dish can provide you with a whole day’s worth of calories or more. A study, recently published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, found that 92% of meals from restaurants had more calories than the requirements for a single meal. In some cases, a single dessert, entree or drink at chain restaurants can provide more than an entire day’s worth of calories.

Twenty years ago, the size of typical food items was 2 to 3 times smaller than those available today. Because these portions slowly changed, most people did not even realize the changes. These modern portions are now equal to multiple servings, meaning people are eating multiple servings without even knowing. You can see how much the portion size has changed in the last 20 years in the table below from the National Institutes of Health.

Comparison of Portions and Calories 20 Years Ago to Present Day

  20 Years Ago   Today
  Portion Calories Portion Calories
Bagel 3” diameter 140 6” diameter 350
Cheeseburger 1 333 1 590
Spaghetti with Meatballs

1 cup sauce, 3 small meatballs

foo

2 cups sauce, 3 large meatballs

1,020
Soda 6.5 ounces 82 20 ounces 200
Blueberry Muffin 1.5 ounces 210 5 ounces 500

Source: “Serving Size and Portions.” National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. National Institutes of Health, 30 Sept. 2013. Web.

After looking at the above table it is not hard to understand the obesity crisis plaguing our country. A study from Trust for America’s Health found that twenty years ago, there was not a single state had an obesity rate close to the 33%+ we see in many states today (in fact, they were all below 15%) . Since then, obesity rates have more than double in much of the country, in direct relation to the change in portion size.

This is not to say that portion control alone is enough to lose weight and curb the obesity problems we are facing, eating healthy foods and adding exercise is also important for living a healthy life, but portion control is a great place to start and will help you get closer to your weight loss goals.

The place to start when you are starting portion control is the nutrition label found on food items. This is typically found on the side panel of packaged food, will be provided by many large restaurants on request, or you can use an mobile app for items that do not have labels (such as home cooking).

There are many things to look at on a food label, but for portion control we are just going to cover the basics. One of the first things on the label is the portion size and how many calories it contains. There are a couple of ways that the portion can be measured, either by volume (i.e. ½ cup, 2 tablespoons) or weight (i.e. 2 ounces, 50 grams). Both are effective ways to measure your food and make sure you are eating the right portion size.

To measure by volume, you will need a set of measuring cups and measuring spoons. If you want to measure by weight, which tends to be a bit more accurate, you will need a kitchen scale. A good first step in portion control is to immediately portion and package snack items when you bring them home from the store, this way you will easily be able to grab the correct portion even if you in a rush to get out the door. Measuring our food is especially helpful for foods such as cereal, where we typically just fill a bowl and eat it even though that bowl may hold 3 or more portions. This will also stop you from unintentionally eating multiple portions in one sitting, because once you finish your pre-portioned snack you will likely think twice about grabbing another portion.

If you are eating out, a great strategy is to order from the appetizer or small plate menu or simply ask for a togo container when the server brings your order out to you so you can immediately place half of a large serving in the container to take home. The idea here is that if you set half of your meal aside, you will not eat the whole thing in one sitting. Plus, you will get to enjoy that meal another time.


Portion control is not a hard thing to do, it just takes a little extra effort before you eat. Make sure you read your labels and measure out foods, and keep a close eye on the servings when you eat out. Adding these few habits to a healthy lifestyle will help you avoid accidental calorie overload and get you on your way towards your goals.

 

  1. “A Brief History of USDA Food Guides.” Choose My Plate. U.S. Food and Drug Administration - Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, June 2011. Web.
  2. Urban, Lorien E., Judith L. Weber, Melvin B. Heyman, Rachel L. Schichtl, Sofia Verstraete, Nina S. Lowery, Sai Krupa Das, Molly M. Schleicher, Gail Rogers, Christina Economos, William A, Masters, and Susan B. Roberts. “Energy Contents of Frequently Order Restaurant Meals and Comparison with Human Energy Requirements and US Department of Agriculture Database Information: A Multisite Randomized Study.” Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics 116.4 (2016): 590-598.e6. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
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